By K.C. Neel First thing I noticed when I walked into Adelphia’s Western region customer call center one chilly March day was the laughter. The customer service reps were smiling, joking and having a good time. And all this time I thought the job was comparable to getting a root canal. Customers yell at you. They threaten to take their business elsewhere. They want their problems resolved yesterday. Yet the 200 or so CSRs yielding calls about video and high-speed data issues at the call center in Colorado Springs, Colo., didn’t appear phased by any of that. I listened in while veteran tech support rep Derek Newsome deftly handled a disgruntled customer who was making his third call to the MSO in a week. His high-speed data service was on the fritz, and he wasn’t happy. He threatened to go to the competition. He made Newsome repeat himself. The tech support rep, however, never lost his composure. He diffused the customer’s wrath, and both parties hung up happily and politely. My eavesdropping on calls with other reps ended with uncannily similar results. With that kind of performance, it’s a wonder Adelphia placed last in J.D. Power & Associates’ 2003 ranking of customer satisfaction among cable and satellite companies. It’s worth noting network reliability is a major factor in J.D. Power’s grading process; Adelphia executives admit the company is playing catch-up with its rebuilds in the aftermath of the Rigas financial scandal and subsequent bankruptcy. Newsome’s testy caller is a testament to that persistent problem. It takes a certain kind of person and a lot of special training to handle the kind of human interaction Newsome faces day in and day out. Yet every customer service rep I talked to at the Colorado Springs call center said they love their job. That’s right-they love their job. It’s not that they’re masochists. Some like knowing they’re helping people. Others like the subject matter. For most, it’s the overall environment that makes each working day enjoyable. "If I could do this for free, I would," Newsome says. "Of course, I’m not going to turn down the paycheck." Happy Employees Means Happy… "The human element is paramount to every business, especially in a service business like cable," says Ellen Filipiak, Adelphia’s SVP, customer care. "How a customer is treated is so important. It sounds clich�d, but if you treat your employees right, they’ll treat your customers right." Adelphia’s Colorado Springs call center has a full-time morale manager, whose sole job is to make sure employees’ needs are being met. Over the course of several months, CSR turnover has gone from wholesale staff changes to about 3% a month for both video and high-speed data, says Cindy Alexander, Adelphia’s high-speed Internet call center director in Colorado Springs. Adelphia stabilized turnover partly by empowering its CSRs to solve customers’ problems on the first call, Alexander says. The emphasis is on troubleshooting, with sales being a secondary priority. Adelphia isn’t alone in putting problem-solving first. There’s been an industrywide shift at call centers from a focus on sales to a focus on making customers happy before pitching new products. Of course, trying to sell additional services continues to be a major initiative, as long as it’s not to the detriment of customers’ satisfaction, Alexander says. Rude Awakening Until recently, customer service was an afterthought for cable operators. After that afterthought came CSR morale and working conditions. In the old days, before effective competition existed, operators didn’t go out of their way to provide good service-they didn’t need to. The abuses eventually contributed to the slew of regulatory rules designed to appease disgruntled cable customers. The real wake-up call came when cable began losing subscribers to the competition. Cable operators finally began learning that to keep their businesses healthy, they needed to keep their customers happy. It hasn’t been easy or cheap. Year after year, DBS operators DirecTV and EchoStar rank higher than cable in customer satisfaction surveys; J.D. Power & Associates ranked DirecTV and EchoStar’s Dish Network first and second, respectively, in its 2003 customer care survey. "Beyond filling the pipeline with new subscribers, providers need to increase their focus on customer retention," says Bruce Leichtman, president of Leichtman Research Group. Comcast, which ranked 12th out of 14 companies rated by J.D. Power, was so distressed by its customer satisfaction rating last year that it launched an initiative called "Think Customer First," says Rob Rowello, VP, customer service, for Comcast’s South Jersey systems that serve 650,000 customers. "The J.D. Power results were an eye-opener for all of us," Rowello says. "It forced us to think seriously about what we can do to fix our customer care." Comcast determined good customer service goes beyond answering the phones in 30 seconds; it has to include high technical standards and network maintenance, as well as marketing promotions. The MSO created incentives and bonuses for employees based on customer satisfaction, and every month 10,000 subscribers across the country are queried on their recent customer service experiences. Those surveyed are asked if they feel valued by Comcast, if the company delivers quality reception and if outages are kept to a minimum. Every system receives a composite metric report each month, Rowello says. The MSO created a similar metric for its call centers known internally as the Comcast Quality Experience (CQE). "We measure whether the customer’s experience was excellent, mediocre or miserable," Rowello says, noting that CQE analysts listen to calls and calibrate an overall grade for performance. Customer account reps must satisfy the customer’s needs; be knowledgeable about products, services and promotions; answer questions to the customer’s satisfaction; fully solve the customer’s problems with the first contact; and, finally, be empathic, kind and polite. "Sales are important, no doubt about it," Rowello says. "But being good communicators and listeners is the No. 1 priority for us. And that skill takes a lot of coaching, resources and discipline. If they get that skill down, the rest falls into place." Communicating and listening well are also high priorities for Adelphia’s managers. The company’s new top executives determined early on that if the company was to thrive, it had to include employees in decision-making processes. Morale throughout Adelphia was at an all-time low when the Rigases were ousted and the company’s headquarters were moved from Coudersport, Pa., to Denver. The customer service reps were dealing with the internal machinations of the company as well as taking the brunt of external criticism from unhappy customers. In Colorado Springs, Cindy Alexander and Frank Hamer, the call center’s video operations director who had worked for Adelphia in Coudersport, ditched several archaic rules. For example, previous management stipulated no children were allowed in the call center, and there was a "no touching" rule, a direct result of a harassment incident. Alexander and Hamer promoted staffers within the organization who had strong people and organizational skills. They threw and sanctioned parties and events. They created teams that work together and help each other out when circumstances arise. "[The managers] are real people who aren’t hung up on hierarchy," Filipiak says. "They know that paying attention to their employees will make the business successful. And, finally, the employees listen to the customers." Smart Segues to Sales Cox is initiating a call center program, "Five Bold Steps," to improve customer care, says Bob Hattori, interim VP, customer care. The five steps: Take a leadership role in customer care and tech support; commit to providing customers with the best care possible; design scores and metrics to make the company accountable for its actions; create state-of-the-art tools and resources; and meet customers’ needs at every turn. Cox launched the project in a couple of systems already; the rest of the MSO’s regions are scheduled to pick it up throughout the year. "Our emphasis is clearly on the bundle," Hattori says. "But before you can sell customers a bundle of services, you have to have their trust first. Once you build that trust with good customer care, service and support, customers will be much more willing to listen to other offers." Despite Adelphia’s emphasis on fixing customers’ problems, about 70% of its sales come as a result of customer calls, Filipiak says. CSRs should always be on the lookout to upsell customers when they call their cable company, says Tom Brooksher, president of the National Cable Television Institute. But some calls just don’t warrant a sales opportunity, he says, noting that about 80% of the phone calls into a customer care center are appropriate for a sales pitch. "We are intent on driving sales," Filipiak says. "But we are really focused on satisfying our customers, whether it be troubleshooting problems or selling them services that meet their needs and desires." Massillon Cable, which serves some 47,000 customers in Massillon, Ohio, doesn’t force its customer service reps to pitch new products on every call. "Our approach to selling services is this: If you have faith in your CSRs and you’re properly [incentivizing] them, they’ll try to sell something if the situation warrants it," says Massillon president Bob Gessner. "But it’s unreasonable to make every call a sales call." Patrick Knorr of Sunflower Broadband in Lawrence, Kan., agrees. "When a customer has a problem, that’s the worst time to try to sell them something. Solve their problem first, and then worry about upselling," he says. "We want to sell our customers more products, but we don’t want to force them down their throats." Aggressive upselling can also result in costly downgrades if customers take additional products that they end up not liking or not being able to afford, especially if the downgrades result in truck rolls. Field Trips for CSRs CSRs with a good understanding of the technical and installation side of the business ultimately improve a customer’s experience and help an operation run smoothly. According to a survey conducted in May 2003 by Zanthus, most broadband customers call tech support to solve one of five problems: no Internet access, problems with e-mail, slow connection, a connection that drops repeatedly and password problems. Newsome says 90% of the calls he gets are related to connectivity, and he says he can generally solve 90% of the calls he gets. However, a truck roll is necessary on occasion. Adelphia is redefining the relationship between its CSRs and field tech reps with an exchange program launched last fall that sends call center reps into the field to see firsthand how the tech reps work. Likewise, field techs are spending more time in the call centers. "The CSRs are finding out how the decisions they make on the phone affect operations in the field," Alexander says. One Adelphia rep made a big mistake when she sent a field tech to fix a problem and didn’t charge the customer. She realized her gaffe when she went on the truck roll with the field tech, only to find out that it took three hours to fix the problem. "She learned to ask more questions before making such determinations in the future," Alexander notes. The program helps Adelphia keep its operating costs in line and gives CSRs a chance to get out from behind their desks and visit systems and markets they might not otherwise get to see, says Rose McKnight Porter, Adelphia’s customer care manager for video in Colorado Springs. Adelphia’s Colorado Springs call center takes calls from customers in 100 systems in the Western half of the U.S. "A rep might not know what Santa Monica, Calif., is like unless they get a chance to visit and see for themselves," McKnight Porter says. "This program gives them a whole new perspective, which makes them better at their jobs." Adelphia has also created a national sales center in Orlando, Fla., to deal with the customer care/customer upsell conundrum. Calls can be automatically switched to this center, Filipiak says. The reps at the center, which is scheduled to open this spring, are trained to sell the services Adelphia offers in each of its markets around the country. This will accomplish a few things: Adelphia will be better equipped to track its promotions and sales; trained sales personnel can spend time selling the company’s products and services rather than worrying about solving a problem or answering a billing question; and tech support reps can take the time to troubleshoot and solve problems without having to worry about trying to sell something every time they answer the phone. The key, Adelphia executives say, is flexibility. The Cost of Caring The cost of customer care has risen as product lists have expanded and the products have gotten more complex. Training is more extensive and more expensive. Just explaining the services and/or listening to customers’ problems takes longer now than it did even 18 months ago. The Zanthus survey found nearly seven in 10 broadband customers called their provider for tech support at least once over the course of the year. What’s more, 40% reported they had to call their provider more than once to solve a problem. The average tech support calls for broadband lasted 13 minutes, according to the Zanthus survey. Adelphia’s high-speed data tech reps average between eight and nine minutes versus less than five minutes for the video side of the house. While there is pressure to keep call lengths to a minimum, call center executives say they’d rather have customers’ issues resolved in one longer phone call than have shorter, repeated calls with less resolution. "My supervisors don’t mind if I take an extra minute or two on the phone if it means the customer goes away happy and satisfied," Adelphia tech rep Newsome says. Comcast’s Rowello concurs. "I’d rather customer account executives take their time and make 5,000 customers happy than have them take less time on the phone and have 6,000 unhappy customers." Call length can also be affected by language barriers. Many call centers are adding bilingual agents to deal with multilingual populations. Operators are also beginning to use third-party translator companies when necessary; this adds flexibility and can cut costs. Bilingual agents are often paid a premium, and second-language expertise, particularly when it comes to languages other than Spanish, isn’t always needed. Time Warner Cable in Los Angeles, which serves a diverse population, has a significant number of Spanish-speaking bilingual agents. When a customer who speaks another language calls the system, Time Warner patches in an interpreter from an outside company who translates the dialogue between agent and customer. Those calls generally take about three times as long to complete as other customer service calls, says Time Warner Cable VP, customer service, Eric Burton. And the service isn’t cheap-Time Warner pays an average $1.50 a minute for each call-but it is more efficient and less expensive than hiring bilingual agents who may be needed once or twice a day, he says. Time Warner Los Angeles receives about 230,000 calls a month from customers. About 15% require Spanish-speaking agents. Only about 500 callers require outside translators each month. "The customers love it," Burton says. "They like that we have taken the time and expense to have someone on the line that speaks their language. The agents like it, too, because it means they can more easily solve the customer’s problem. I can’t afford to staff reps that speak, say, Arabic, 24/7. But I can take calls from Arabic-speaking customers 24/7. It’s just good customer service." Taking some of the heat off CSRs with services such as the one used by Time Warner has made the job more enjoyable, call center executives say. Contented employees means lower turnover, which means less time and money spent on training (maintenance training continues to be a major factor in the budgeting of time and money at cable call centers). It also can lead to fewer customer defections and better balance sheets. This is difficult to quantify, but executives say it’s imperative to implement programs and dispatch tools that make CSRs’ jobs easier. The desktop tools at CSRs’ disposal are vital to the overall satisfaction of both the agent and the customer. The problem is that new, spiffy tools are expensive and elaborate. Many MSOs say they’re trying to upgrade their call centers with fancy desktop solutions, but the deployments are costly and time-consuming. Consolidation of the cable industry has resulted in legacy billing systems and software that often requires CSRs to use multiple and cumbersome programs. Operators are also enhancing their self-care capabilities so customers can use the Internet to solve their problems. Personal interaction between CSRs and customers won’t go away anytime soon, however. While 20% of the Zanthus survey respondents said they’d prefer online chat to solve their technical problems, 52% still want to talk to someone on the phone. Some reps like the human interaction as well. "I like customer service and I like computers," says Mark Adams, an Adelphia tech rep. "I got to turn a hobby and a joy into a career. I’ve had some angry calls. But when you hear the joy in the voices of the people you help and you hear them say thanks, that’s just so great."